Decolonising glossary

A working document attempting to identify and understand the different ways and places in which decolonising work is taking place. Not exhaustive and still learning.

Last updated: 18 August 2021
Previously updated: 21 January 2021.

Please contact us to suggest amendments or additions.

We also find the Anti-Racist Educator’s Glossary very useful.

How people most affected by legacies of colonialism are described

AAME. African, Asian and Minority Ethnic.

BAME. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (UK only) sometimes BME Black AND Minority Ethnic. Common in media and policy making. Contested usefulness as promotes binary with ‘White’ or those not routinely radicalised. Often used as a word without expansion or detail.

BIPOC. Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (North America).

Culturally diverse/ethnically diverse. Gaining popularity as a short-hand for people with non-European ancestry/self-identity. See Inc Arts for others.

Ethnic minority/minority ethnic. Related to acronym BAME.

Indigenous people. Those who lived and live in lands that were later colonised, in North America also known as First Nations.

Immigrants and migrants (black and brown) vs. colonial settlers and ex-pats (white).

Intersectional. Intersectionality. The combination of disadvantage experienced by a person because of multiple forms of prejudice e.g. race and gender, or race and disability, or geographic origin/accent and class. May also describe complex of multiple identities.

Marginalised. Describing people who lack decision-making powers and representation in public spaces and roles, including collections. Also underserved.

POC. People of colour.

Racialised. People who experience or are disadvantaged by systemic racism. Also those whose ethnicity is usually highlighted in descriptions and policy, in comparison to those whose ethnicity is ignored.

Refugees and asylum seekers.

Source communities. People whose direct cultural and ancestral heritage resides in institutions outside their country and those in diaspora communities with a connection to that heritage.

Underserved. Those who disproportionately do not benefit from services because of unfair practices.

Other ways in which decolonising practice is talked about

Afriphobia. Anti-African hate and racism. Explained by TAOBQ (The African or Black Question).

Anti-Blackness. Specific racial prejudice against Black people. Including anti-black sentiment in non-white cultural groups.

Anti-colonial. Actively against colonial actions, structures and institutions, often calling for their dismantling.

Antisemitism/anti-Semitic. Hatred and distrust of Jews and Jewishness.

Black Lives Matter. #BlackLivesMatter. Sometimes shortened to BLM. Decentralised social and political movement originating in the USA but spreading globally in 2020 to campaign for systemic societal change and the dismantling of white supremacy.

Christonormativity. Prevailing Western starting point based in culturally Christian dogma (not an attack on Christianity as religious belief and practice).

Colonial, colonialism. Subjugation of one people by another particularly used to denote the period of British and European empires of colonies from 17th to 20th centuries. Political and economic control of a state over remote colonies. Also imperialism.

Colonial loot. Short-hand for objects and collections violently or otherwise taken/confiscated/’acquired’ from former colonies of European empires of the 17th-20th centuries. Sometimes it is erroneously assumed that all museums were created to house stolen and taken art and artefacts from colonies.

Contested heritage. Historical narratives, often embodied in an artefact, collection, building or monument, that are the focus of competing or conflicting ideas and interpretation, e.g. statues and other depictions of slavers, and items looted/spoliated/confiscated during conflict, including colonial-era conflict now held in museums.

Culture wars. Ideological battles largely played out in the media, including social media, related to actions and reactions to progressive social and political causes, including those related to how heritage should be presented and interpreted, particularly in relation to addressing colonial legacies. Emerging from opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement and its influence on raising the profile of systemic racism throughout our institutions, now also applied to promoting and resisting other causes such as around gender identity. Used to discredit efforts to raise awareness and research on racism and other social injustices. Usually includes derogatory use of the term woke.

Decolonising the database. Phrase used to critically engage with the concept that museum collections databases mimic or reinforce colonial power structures and replicate their prejudices and methods of hierarchical knowledge production. Usually focused on terminology rather than actual structure. Criticism includes problem of erasure when amending records, and lack of understanding of history of museum documentation .

Diversity, diverse. Most commonly used to refer to representation in a group or workforce based on expanding from the dominance of people with a narrow range of identities and lived experiences, e.g. racial or ethnic diversity, disability and neurodiversity, class and wealth. Also used to describe the progressive attitude/behaviour of an organisation in relation to its people, or ‘undiverse’ being the opposite. Frequently used in conjunction with equality, equity and inclusion.

Do the work. Slogan in response to requests from those in privileged positions for others to explain or help or represent on their behalf.

Equity [viz. equality]. Fairness. Giving people who are marginalised or disadvantaged what they need to access things or be represented fairly. Sometimes also described as equality of outcome, rather than equality of opportunity.

Ethnocentrism. Making assumptions about another culture or group based on preconceptions originating in one’s own culture or cultural understanding; or assuming your race or nationality is superior to those of other cultures.

Eurocentrism. Assuming the preeminence or importance of people and things originating in European countries e.g. Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy.

Exceptionalism, supremacy. Belief in the superiority of one cultural group or race over another e.g. White supremacy, English exceptionalism.

Exclusion and inequality.

Global South. Countries previously described as ‘third-world’ or ‘developing’. A shifting meaning, used in economics and post-colonial studies.

Historical ignorance. Selective telling, remembering of partial histories that suppress stories of wrong-doing, oppression of and violence against other people.

Identity politics. Employing the discourse of marginalisation and oppression to further the cause of raising awareness of your people, a community, or those who hold similar beliefs to you or have a similar socio-cultural background and experience.

Imperialism, Empire and Anti-imperialism.

Inclusion, inclusivity. Creating new ways of doing that are centred on removing barriers to access and participation, be they physical, psychological, social or financial.

Intersectionality. How identities combine. How racism is experienced when combined with other prejudices e.g. those based on disability, class culture, age, gender, sexuality, migration, language.

Islamophobia. Hatred and distrust of Muslims and Islam. Also Anti-Muslim racism.

Offensive language. Hateful and derogatory words, vocabulary and terms that are experienced as psychological violence. Also referred to as outdated language such as that found in historical records and archives.

Post-colonial. Work on regions of the world and their people after the end of empire.

Minority rights.

Museums are not neutral. Slogan from long-standing movement to highlight the political nature of museums in terms of how they were founded, funded and how they selectively represent history.

Race, Racism and Anti-racism.

  • Institutional, structural and systemic racism = racist policy and practice in terms of outcomes e.g. recruitment, decision-making, interpretation, collections development and management.
  • Anti-racism is a proactive stance against racism in all forms seen in actions and work rather than statements and policy.

Reindigenisation. Loose concept to denote the need to re-establish or establish ways of thinking and doing that are not based in Western (colonial) thought, ideology or habit. This can extend to dress-codes and the use of multiple languages rather than English.

Restitution. Often used interchangeably with repatriation, specifically to a clearly identified owner, but may also refer to restorative practices such as compensation.

Repatriation. Of cultural artefacts taken, looted (spoliated) during war or colonial occupation.

Slavery and enslaved peoples.

Trigger warning. Courtesy to warn readers, listeners or viewers of content they may find distressing because of its violence or humiliating and offensive language and/or representations.

Whiteness, white gaze, white fragility, conditional whiteness. Facets of cultural and historic attitudes to and by people of white British and European heritage as espoused in critical race theory.

Expression of colonial and and other power relations

Being ‘colour-blind’. Proclamation of not seeing or not choosing to notice dimensions of race in another, also called ‘oppression blindness’.

Dismantle, dismantling. To deconstruct or displace colonial or dominant social, cultural and political structures that are based on the dominance of one group of people over another. Includes addressing concepts like white supremacy, and even the very idea of a museum and hierarchically organised collections.

Emotional labour. Psychological burdens experienced mainly by people of colour to do all the work, in the same category as ‘diversity hires‘.

Free speech vs hate speech and abuse. 

Gaslighting. Manipulation of other people’s reality. Trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions.

Microaggressions. Less obvious racism in everyday life, e.g. “where are you from? No, where are you really from?”

Othering. Being pejorative about people different to you, or viewing all people who are different, e.g. those with a different appearance or voice as one homogeneous group e.g. migrants 

Performative allyship. Statements not backed up by actions and core practice.

Positionality. Being self-aware of your power and privilege in relation to another.

Power (wealth, funding, networks, decision-making). Speaking truth to power, a way of expressing the challenges inherent in decolonial work.

Prejudice and discrimination. Words commonly associated with oppressive power play.

Privilege. Usually, not always, associated with white privilege. Systemic and institutional racism can benefit those with privilege, as well as disadvantage those without privilege.

Re-writing history. Accusation commonly made against those who campaign for tangible decolonial acts, e.g. taking down statues of slave owners and proponents of Colonial and post-colonial racist policy; changing the names of galleries, rooms and museums; changing the school curriculum to more truthfully reflect Colonial racism, violence and oppression. 

Reverse racism. Accusation made by those from privileged groups (e.g. people of White European heritage) who experience prejudice from others based on their looks, colour of their skin or perceived life advantage.

Silence. On racism and racist practices, on prejudices, on policies that will exclude.

Trust and trustworthy. Particularly important in museums as, in general, society believes museums to be trustworthy.

Violence and oppression. Oppressive practices. Deeply rooted normalised practices and power play e.g. questions on diversity monitoring forms, procedures, the experience of confronting displays, language used in description, marketing and labelling, many others….

Virtue signalling. Associating yourself or organisation with a cause to make yourself look good by aligning yourself with others e.g. anti-racism or decolonisation, for example, by making statements, but not living by them or actioning them in practice.

Woke. Having sensitivity towards injustice, particularly racism, homophobia and ableism. Also used under the guise of culture wars as a derogatory term towards those raising awareness of injustice, especially racial injustice.